Onwards is a bold debut for the Boston-based group thanks to some ambitious songwriting and incredible picking. The title track begins the album with the harmonies and energy typical of a traditional bluegrass band before making an unexpected key change about two minutes in. It’s a wonderful moment of progressive bluegrass with an emphasis on the bluegrass.
Much of the rest of the album goes in a different direction, though not necessarily a less rewarding one. “Soldiers and Sailors,” an ode to the timeless-but-ever-changing New York City, best announces Mile Twelve’s musical philosophy. Their brand of bluegrass draws both progressive and Old World influences and wisely emphasizes the mood of each track over strict adherence to any genre or style. It’s meant to sound old-fashioned and modern, much in the same way the track celebrates the appearance of New York.
There are two misfires on the album; both wind up being the album’s only two covers. “Sunny Side of Town” feels too dated next to the rest of the album’s content and proves that while Mile Twelve is great at harmonizing and shredding, ‘raw and bluesy’ isn’t their best look. “Ace of Hearts” is a straight-up bluegrass number that, while much better than “Sunny” if taken alone, also struggles to fit in on an album of layered, clever, genre-bending tracks. By contrast, when an old-time sound shows up in originals, it also contributes to the mood. “The Day You Left” and “You Don’t Even Know It Yet” are both somewhat comic and use their old-fashioned melodies to boost that effect. While a young band could certainly have worse problems than out-writing the songs it chooses to cover, it’s still something that needs to be addressed.
“The Margaret Keene,” a tragic love story partially set on the high seas, is easily the finest work on the album. It has all the complexity and shifts of a Sierra Hull track with a more accessible story and sound. “Wickwire,” an instrumental, accomplishes something similar, just without words.
The new album is called Onwards and that’s also the name of the first track. You make quite a statement I think in that song by instituting a bold key and mood change halfway through.
BB Bowness (banjo): Yeah, thank you. That was a song Nate, our bass player brought to the band originally and we all kind of got our hands in and started to sing it together. Evan wrote another couple of verses after we started working on it as a band. We thought that would be a nice opening number for the record because we wanted to say “Hey, we are a bluegrass band.” I mean it’s really grassy in some ways, like the speed in the key of it, but also putting in some other influences in there.
Next track I want to mention, and this is to me the masterstroke on this album, you put together almost a folk epic on “Margaret Keene.” Again, some major key and mood shifts, and it comes with an unexpected ending.
Evan Murphy (guitar and lead vocalist on most tracks): “The Margaret Keene” was one that was a real group composition. Everyone has impacted that one. Nate had written this other song about a boat called the Margaret Keene and Bronwyn and I worked up this kind of minor sounding you know almost Celtic chord progression and melody and Nate heard that and was like “This actually reminds me of this other song I wrote. What if we transported some of the stories from this other song into this new thing that you guys have?” So then we all got to work on it and it took us weeks to write it and then an additional several weeks to arrange it and there was constant rewriting of lyrics and adding verses and rearranging. We knew that we wanted to have something dramatic when we came up with that huge key change for the banjo solo, so there were a lot. Like, it took us weeks to come up with all that
BBB: I think it changed like probably four or five times before we fully settled on the final arrangement that’s on the record. We performed that for a month or so with a certain way of ending it and dealing with it for another month with a different ending. It took a while.
EM: Yeah and Nate and I would have question constantly whether the lyrics told the story in a way that meant the person listening to it would understand. Because I loved that idea that Nate had in the original song about these two people who go out on a boat and only one of them actually sees it as this escape. And so we would just go back and forth over and over again like “Should we add another verse here? Like this is the story really like coming through?
Let me jump to a track that touches on New York called “Soldiers and Sailors.” For those of us who aren’t New Yorkers, explain what exactly that is.
Nate Sabat (bass): I wrote this song and there’s a lot of different kind of things that it touches on. The monument itself, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is on 88th and Riverside in the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I grew up. And it’s a monument to the Union soldiers who fought the Civil War. But really, the song is really about me. After having left New York to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston five years ago, it’s about my relationship with the statue and with the city and how the city keeps changing every time I go back but the statue kind of remains as a you know a testament to things that never change.
This is where I almost see sort of thesis that runs through more tracks on the album than any other, where you’re sort of the looking at things that remain very constant and almost timeless. It has sort of an old-timey feel but at the same time there’s nothing specific either to older or modern times. And I just found it remarkable that from a couple of tracks I couldn’t get a hint on where the album took place in time. Especially with tracks like “Call My Soul” and “Margaret Keene” sounding as though they took place in the distant past.
NS: Well we definitely we kind of like writing you know writing stories about modern day and in the past. And I think the music on the record definitely reflects that too. You know we have some stuff that’s a lot more traditional sounding, like if you listen to “Day You Left” and “Settle Down Blues, those are tracks that were really were inspired by older music from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We wanted to emulate some of that stuff. But yeah there’s there’s definitely some modern twists in those as well. I mean I definitely like writing music that sounds old and new at the same time. That’s something that’s fascinating to me so I’m glad that came across.
Let’s talk about one you mentioned. “The Day You Left” was both hilarious and painfully relatable. You have a singer almost bragging about how bad he is with relationships.
EM: I love like old country music and stuff by Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and George Jones. Sometimes we perform that song “She Thinks I Still Care” by George Jones and my favorite thing about that song is that anyone listening to it, it’s obvious to them that the character in the song does still care about a person who left him, but he’s singing about how he doesn’t care anymore. So I love these country songs where the audience or the listener is in on the joke that the narrator of the song doesn’t seems to be in on. It cracks me up, the idea of this character who’s such a jerk that he he considers it to be a win when he predicts that people are going to leave him.
Let’s close out with the settled down blues. It’s definitely a nice way to end the album, but how was yodeling?
EM: Well, those are some of my favorite bluegrass tracks to listen to, the Blue Yodels and songs like that. I remember when we had first started the band, we didn’t have much original material at the beginning. We were all trying to bring some that we had written as a group and I remember thinking about how all those Blue Yodels sort of sound more or less the same as each other, so I was thinking it might be a quick way to get an original song to just write our own version of one of those. It ended up sticking around and then we did it for a long time and we decided to put on the album. But yodeling is such a great part of the bluegrass vocal repertoire and everyone has this different yodel from Bill Monroe to Del McCoury, Chris Thile and Michael Daves and Tim O’Brien and it’s like, the yodel is such a personal thing.
Is it a different type of mindset you have to be in than regular singing to let a yodel rip like that?
EM: Well that’s actually a fine line to try to walk when you’re singing bluegrass if you’re not like if you’re not from Kentucky or the hills of Virginia. I’m from Boston, so I don’t ever want to sound like I’m faking it or I’m making fun of bluegrass when I’m singing because I I love that material. So I am trying to put some grit onto it and adopt some of the stylistic things from singers like Del McCoury who I love. But yeah, definitely you have to put some grit onto it. You can’t you can’t do it too pretty if you’re going to be doing a yodel.